Sybil Baker spent twelve years teaching in South Korea prior to accepting a position as an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after earning her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. During her extensive travels throughout Asia, she became increasingly interested in the allure and alienation of American travelers and expatriates, and this has heavily influenced her writing. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including upstreet, The Bitter Oleander, Paper Street, and Alehouse. Her essay on American expatriate literature appeared in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle in September 2005. Her website can be found at www.sybilbaker.com.
Thanks for being my guest today, Sybil. It's a pleasure to have you here at Blogcritics. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started writing?
Well, I actually started writing stories when I first learned to write in the first grade. I’ve been writing creatively ever since.
I started The Life Plan in late fall 2004. I was living in Seoul, South Korea, and wanted to write a comic novel that took place in Thailand and chronicled a couple’s marriage in crisis. I finished the first draft about a year later.
What was inspiration for your novel, The Life Plan?
From 2003-2005, I was a student in Vermont College’s MFA program. In spring 2004, I told my advisor Patricia Henley that I was recently divorced, and she suggested I write about it. I agreed with her but was afraid I was too close to the subject and that whatever I wrote would be a bitter, self-involved pity party. I used to write humor columns when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, so I thought that if I made the character different from me and wrote with humor I might have the distance to pull the story off.
At that point I’d been living in South Korea for about nine years and had traveled around Asia extensively. I’d always loved Thailand and thought it would be a great place to set a novel.
Tell us a bit about the plot and about the protagonist.
I think the best way to learn about The Life Plan is to watch the book trailer:
If I have to describe the plot of the Life Plan in ten words or fewer I say the plot is Bridget Jones meets Eat, Pray, Love. Here’s the longer version.
Kat, a lawyer in DC, is a woman with a Life Plan — written and documented so that nothing will go wrong. When Kat’s husband Dan enrolls for a course in Thailand to study massage, Kat is compelled to go with him to save the marriage. Soon Kat finds herself not only fighting for her marriage, but her career and reputation as well. Yet when Kat has a chance to regain all that she has lost, she finally questions her own reasons for pursuing her rigid life plan.
Kat is like a lot of women I’ve met. She’s twenty-nine and facing the pressure of trying to have “it all”—career, family, marriage—by the time she’s thirty five. When she first arrives in Thailand she’s a cross between the stereotypical ugly American and the innocent abroad, a la Daisy Miller. Kat’s physical journey through Thailand mirrors her emotional journey of trying to accept that that life does not always go according to plan.
I understand the novel is written in the first person. You also worked as a humor columnist before. Was it easier to find your voice in first person because of your column writing background?
That’s a great question. I chose to write this novel in the first person because I thought it was important to tell the story in Kat’s voice. I wanted to make it clear that the impressions and reactions to Thailand are Kat’s and not an “objective” commentary. I thought that writing in first person would make it easier for me to keep a comic tone in the novel as well. So yes, I think writing a humor column helped me access that comic voice—one I hadn’t used in my writing for almost twenty years.
Who is the target audience for your book?
The target audience is women in their 20s-30s who are interested in reading comic novels about strong complex female characters living in the modern world. People who are interested in reading about different countries, travel fiction, and global fiction would also be interested in The Life Plan.
Because the novel poses so many questions that are relevant to women today, I think The Life Plan would be great for book clubs as well. I’m working on posting reading group questions on my website, and I can meet with clubs in person (if they’re club is within driving distanc) or via Skype.
That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of men who have told me they loved the book. That unexpected response has been great.
You've traveled extensively around the world. How have your travels influenced your writing?
I think even more than traveling, living out of the country for twelve years influenced my themes and outlook in my writing. Even though I visited the States frequently, Asia felt more like home and the U.S. like the foreign country. Because I lived abroad for so long, I hope I can place my stories and themes within a more global context than if I’d not traveled or moved abroad. The novel I’ve almost finished takes place in the States, but after I finish it I plan to return to writing about Americans in other countries.
What are your writing habits like? Are you disciplined?
More than disciplined, I’m busy! My writing habits depend on the time of year. Because I teach at a university, I can write a lot during the summer and on breaks when I’m not teaching. There are also periods in the semester when I can get a lot of writing done, but there are other times when I have to let it go. I try make writing goals like, I’ll finish chapter X by Friday, or I plan to have a draft finished by the end of X. Right now I’m planning on revising the novel I’m working on by the end of April so that I can give it to a few friends to read and comment on while I’m traveling in South Africa in May. When I get back in June I’ll start notes for a new novel and work on some essays.
What are you working on now?
The novel’s working title is “Replay.” Like The Life Plan, Replay is a comic novel and the main character, Stacy lives in Washington DC. Unlike Kat from The Life Plan, Stacy has artistic ambitions and doesn’t have much of a Life Plan at all.
Here’s the synopsis:
Thirty-four-year old Stacy Mullins is stuck artistically, romantically, and professionally. After her father suddenly dies leaving his daughters in debt, Stacy moves from city to suburbs to be a temporary nanny to her sister’s children. When her college ex and now successful screenwriter, Ben Logan unexpectedly shows up in her life, Stacy falls for Ben all over again. While her own life continues to fall apart, Stacy must decide if undoing the mistakes of her past is the only way to move forward with her future
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
If you read The Life Plan or are interested in reading the book for your book club, please get in touch with me, I’d love to hear from you. And please leave a review at Amazon, Goodreads or other sites. Spread the word—ever reader’s voice counts!
Thank you for hosting me! I enjoyed it!